Believe It or Not: Illustrators can be Rich!

Robert Ripley at his drawing board from
Robert Ripley at his drawing board, from

In 1930, in the depths of the Great Depression, the highest paid artist in America was a cartoonist. Robert Ripley earned $350,000 in 1931. Presidents of railroads earned less. Babe Ruth earned $80,000. The average American earned $1,850. King Features syndicated his Believe it Not cartoons to hundreds of newspapers. That contract alone was worth $100,000 annually. Ripley leveraged his drawing ability and celebrity to earn his fortune via lectures, newsreels, and a radio show.


A Curious Man, The Strange and Brilliant life of Robert ‘Believe It or Not!’ Ripley by Neal Thompson is now out in paperback, published by Three Rivers Press.

A classic Ripley cartoon, drawn charcoal, 1932.
A classic Ripley cartoon, drawn charcoal, 1932.

I enjoyed the biography. I like Ripley’s charcoal drawing style. Even when he had photo reference his line quality suggests direct observation. I wanted to like Robert Ripley, the man, but found him terribly creepy. He was a world traveler, but like many Americans declined to learn other languages. He’d just speak English louder expecting to be understood.


Ripley did have an urbane assistant, a Polish emigre named Norbert Pearlroth. Pearlroth had a photographic memory and spoke eleven languages. It was Pearlroth who spent long days in The NY Public Library mining the stacks for bizarre factoids to fill the columns. Ripley did the drawings. Ripley paid Pearlroth $75 a week and never publicly acknowledged Pearlroth’s contribution. He never invited Pearlroth to the endless parties at his posh Manhattan digs or to his private island.

Ripley’s island, called BION Island (Believe It Or Not) was on the Long Island Sound. He hired a string of beautiful 18-year-old female assistants and made them sign a waiver stating that they came voluntarily to his island. He was a heavy drinker and by the end of the night could forget his date’s name. His 28-room mansion on BION Island had a basement full of erotic curiosities and medieval torture devices. We learn “girlfriend-secretary-housekeepers overlapped and two or three would be living on BION Island at once.” And “those who stayed found… easy living, easy money, not too much work and plenty of liquor.”

Ripley published Charles Schulz's first dog cartoon in 1937.
Ripley published Charles Schulz’s first dog cartoon in 1937.

Long before Snoopy appeared in Peanuts, Charles Schulz drew his iconic beagle and mailed it to Robert Ripley. Ripley included the teenager’s drawing in the 1937 cartoon above.

Thompson writes that Ripley, who had buck teeth and a speech impediment felt empathy for the strange people he wrote about. Ripley never liked the term “freaks” He preferred his own word “queeriosities.”

Ripley measuring a moustache.
Ripley measuring Arjan Desur Dangar’s mustache aboard a ship from India.

Mister Arjan Desur Dangar was scheduled to appear at Ripley’s Odditorium at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. That did not work as planned. “Dangar fought with his manager, who ripped off half of his mustache. Ripley sent them back to India.”

The syndicated Ripley cartoons continue to this day. Perhaps they have lost some impact. Today everybody is a Ripley documenting the freaks on their block, or you-tubing their own Jackass antics.

Ripley might be pleased that this book has a gimmick: the downloadable “Oddscan” phone app. When the reader finds the Oddscan mark on a page they can scan the page with their cell phone to view exclusive hidden content. “Dear Reader: Want to see a man stick a spoke through his tongue, or get shot in the gut with a cannonball and survive?” Alas, I can’t vouch for this feature. I don’t have a cell phone, Believe it or Not!

Amazing Facts and Beyond © Kevin Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch
Amazing Facts and Beyond © Kevin Huizenga and Dan Zettwoch

I will leave you with one final irony, above. Ripley became a millionaire with his Believe it or Not cartoons. Today Dan Zettwoch and Kevin Huizenga are creating Amazing Facts and Beyond, a satire on Believe it or Not. Zettwoch and Huizenga are two amazing cartoonists, but are making hardly any money at all! -Believe it or Not!

Detail© K. Huizinga& D. Zettwoch for more info:
Detail © K. Huizenga & D. Zettwoch- More info:

Disclosure: I got this Ripley biography, A Curious Man, free from If you blog, check it out.


19th century British illustrations from the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

I picked up a copy The Penny Magazine of  the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. I got it at  Renninger’s, the Kutztown Farmer’s Market. This magazine was published in 1834. It cost me one dollar. Consulting an online Historical UK Price Convertor reveals one British 1834 penny is today worth nearly .97 pound sterling, or about $1.51 U.S.. Wow! I saved 50% I’m not an antique collector. I actually started to reading the cover story about mangoes and found it fascinating.

“The Mango-tree is a native of India and the southwestern countries of Asia, and also grows abundantly in Brazil and the West Indies. …It is a large tree, attaining a height of thirty or forty feet…” The author tries to describe the taste that “melts in the mouth with a cooling sweetness that can hardly be imagined by those who have not tasted the choicest of nature’s delicacies.”

Photography was in its infancy, so this illustration is an engraving, probably on steel. The tree is drawn with confidence. One curious detail is the tiny figure, who looks to be smoking a bong. The text goes on to inform us the “Hindoos” use mango wood on their funeral pyres. The diffusion of useful knowledge continues. There is a note about mango chutney, and directions for eating the fruit. We are advised if we ever transport mangoes by sailing ship “they should be covered to defend them from the water and the spray of the sea.”

The little magazine is just eight pages. There is a review of a concert at an inn in Sussex, that concedes “England is now not a musical country.” Next comes the magazine’s longest article on the history of the East India Tea Company. It is illustrated with an engraving of the company’s London headquarters, so large that one has to turn the magazine sideways to see it.

There is a fascinating story about “The Cat Painter,” Gottfried Mind, born in Switzerland in 1768. The critic tells us Mind’s “drawings of cats were so admirable as to entitle him to the honourable, but rather awkward title, of The Raphael of Cats.” Unfortunately, this one story is not illustrated. I never heard of him, did you?  I found an illustration of Herr Mind’s art at Wikipedia. One of the scholarly references cited is an 1887 article by Franz Wiedemann: Der Katzenraphael.

Art by Gottfried Mind, "the Raphael of Cats," courtesy Wikemedia.

There is one more illustration on the last page of the Penny Magazine that I must share, below. This sort of image reminds us that England not only gave us the Encylopedia Brittanica, but she also gave birth to Monty Python’s Flying Circus!
Speaking of WIKIPEDIA: I would be lost without Wikipedia. Not only did Wikipedia help me investigate the Raphael of Cats, but it came in handy many times when I was putting together Powerpoint lectures for my History of Graphic Design class. I just made a tiny painless Paypal donation to Wikipedia. Happy Holidays, Wikipedia! You make me happy! The Diffusion of Useful Knowledge goes digital!